Monday, February 25, 2008

Things We Don't Understand

I don't think that the Faust stories are about things we should not understand. I would open the box every time, like Pandora. One thing that perplexes me mightily is people who say they don't want to know the sex of their baby before it's born. Especially when your lab technician knows something like that, why would you deliberately choose to keep yourself in the dark? I am not in favor of willful ignorance. At any rate, I think the Faust stories are about things that we understand imperfectly. We think we know what we're doing, but the danger lies in the fact that we haven't completely understood what we're dealing with.

I just read a science fiction novel entitled Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, in which aliens came to Earth, had something like a roadside picnic, and then went back into space, leaving a zone full of mysterious and lethal objects lying around for humans to explore. The humans don't understand the purpose of these objects. They're like ants crawling over discarded plastic cups full of soda, except that this soda might be like acid to these ants. One of the effects of human forays into the zone is mutation, and another is the reanimation of dead flesh, called a moulage.

I have excluded zombie fiction (and it's a growing genre, have you noticed?) from my exploration of necromancy, because a zombie is not a person brought back to life. A zombie is merely a body brought back to life. Big difference.

But the moulage in Roadside Picnic isn't exactly a zombie. It's reanimated, but no more scary than the mutated child. In fact, towards the end of the novel, the child "stood there with her hairy paws on the table and then in a perfectly childlike way, she leaned against the moulage and put her head on his shoulder. Noonan went on chatting but thought, as he looked at those two horrors born of the Zone: My God, what else? What else has to be done to us before we understand?"

That Dr. Faustus is less satisfied than before after bringing Helen of Troy back to life is the climax of that story. It's the point where he begins to realize that he understands very little about what he has been doing. There are those who argue that we should understand everything about what we're doing before we proceed. Literature is loaded with examples of the dangers of proceeding when we understand too little, but also full of examples of the courage of those who try "to sail beyond the sunset" anyway.

1 comment:

Ron Griggs said...

I am reminded of Rikki-tikki-tavi's family motto: Run and find out! A mongoose is never willfully ignorant.